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The scientific case for collective action on the climate crisis

On May 24, 2019, students and young people from 1,600 cities around the world led a second wave of protests and classroom strikes to call for action on the climate crisis. Here in the Philippines, hundreds of young people from at least 15 cities across Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao joined the global movement. Among their demands are the phaseout of coal in the country and a just transition to 100 percent renewables by 2050.

Greta Thunberg, one of the leading voices in the movement, invited adults to participate in a global general strike on Sept. 27. Like the student-led rallies and strikes, the general strike will call on world leaders to take urgent action on the climate crisis.

Are strikes and protests like these an effective means to help solve the climate crisis? Let’s look at the science.

The climate crisis is a planet-wide disruption in the climate system that will, if not averted, result in the death and suffering of millions, if not billions of people all over the world. Its effects include the increasing frequency of super-storms, floods, and droughts and increase in the occurrence of diseases such as dengue and malaria. These will lead to secondary effects such as conflict and public health crises.

The disruption is caused by the rapid increase in the amount of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. These heat-trapping gases include carbon dioxide and methane. Because of their increasing amount in the atmosphere, the whole world becomes warmer on average, leading to a disruption in the climate.

Preventing the worst of the climate crisis therefore requires reduction in the amount of heat-trapping gases released into the atmosphere. According to the latest scientific data, the required reduction has to be both substantial and rapid. In other words, the required changes have to be dramatic. Incremental changes, though welcome, are no longer enough.

This is especially the case since the leading activities that release heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere are no less than the pillars of our modern civilization: generation of energy, modern agriculture, long distance transportation, cooling and refrigeration, and manufacturing.

It is therefore not surprising that, when the scientific evidence is examined, the most effective solutions to the climate crisis require system change and not mere isolated behavior change.

Project Drawdown, a climate change mitigation project initiated by Paul Hawken and Amanda Joy Ravenhill, lists some of the most effective solutions to the climate crisis. According to analysis of the experts involved in the project, the top 10 solutions are: the management of refrigerants, replacement of fossil fuel-based energy with wind turbines and solar farms, reduced food waste, reduced meat consumption through the widespread adoption of a plant-based diet, preservation and recovery of forests, improved education for girls, widespread access to family planning, use of silvopasture in raising livestock, and widespread use of rooftop solar.

What is immediately visible in the list above, and is further reinforced if one examines the expanded list, is that such solutions require both changes in the way most people do things (behavior change) but also changes in the way institutions function (system change).

After all, only a few of us can afford to have a rooftop solar system installed at our homes, and fewer still have a direct hand in crafting the country’s energy roadmap.

When we turn on the aircon at home, we have little control over what kind of coolant it uses, and even less control on how the energy that powers the aircon was generated. We can bike all we want, but if the water we will drink once we get home is cooled using energy from burning coal, our carbon footprint would have not been reduced by much.

While all of us can and should reduce our food waste, data from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization shows that most food waste occurs even before food reaches the shelves of the supermarket.

While plant-based diet is something we should all embrace, its widespread adoption is hampered by an economic system that promotes the production and consumption of meat.

We can also practice family planning in our personal lives and try to promote the education of girls, but if our government does not provide widespread access to such services, the impact of our individual actions will be insignificant.

I can go on and on with examples supporting the same point: individual action and behavior change are only effective if they lead to collective action and systemic change.

Given this fact, the answer to the question at the beginning is yes, protest rallies and strikes can be an effective means to force the necessary system change to take place. Given the magnitude and urgency of the crisis, I invite everyone to seriously consider this option. Join the general strike for climate on Sept. 27.

Topics: Sounds of Science , climate crisis
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